Those Were The Days: The Post-Partition Refugee Life

In the town of Jagadhri in modern-day Haryana, where my family and many other refugees reached in the days after the Partition, resilience and fortitude showed the way.

The recent announcement that the Partition Museum at Dara Shikoh Library Building at Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi is scheduled for inauguration later this year triggered mixed childhood memories of families uprooted from their homes after the cataclysmic Partition and of settling in the little-known north Indian town of Jagadhri.

Located between Ambala, in modern day Haryana, and Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, sleepy Jagadhri, 190 km northwest of New Delhi, was an unlikely destination for hordes fleeing from the newly-created territory of Pakistan in August 1947. But like numerous other cities and towns across India, Jagadhri, then in Punjab and later in Haryana after 1966, became home to hundreds of directionless refugees fleeing the mindless butchery that the Partition sparked.

It is unlikely that the hapless and benumbed escapees of the carnage across West Punjab were even aware of, much less attracted by, the historical antecedents of this nondescript town that finds mention in the Mahabharata and other Buddhist texts by its ancient name Yugandhari. It is also a mystery how so many of them arrived in Jagadhri, located some five kilometres away from the railway station.

While many families flocked to a hastily erected refugee camp near the railway station, others ventured further afield to reach Jagadhri town. Each of these families carried with them the baggage of displacement and resultant violence, provoked by cynical politicians and a beleaguered colonial administration that casually divided a country like no other in history, leaving millions of dead in its wake, and millions of others on the wrong side of the border.

Also read: Fragmented Identities: (Re)living the ‘Partition’ Today

They came from all-over modern-day Pakistan: Lahore, Multan, Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), Sargodha, Gujranwala, and the North West Frontier Province or NWFP, recently renamed Pakhtunkhwa. My older brother even had a friend who was eponymously called Sindhi after his native Sindh. Moving on with their lives, many invariably named their businesses or workplaces after the town they hailed from; hence, Frontier Tea Stall, Lyallpur Cloth House, Sargodha Metal Works, and Lahore Shoe Store were common names in the Jagadhri of my youth, but have, more or less, disappeared in recent years.

Few of these refugee families in Jagadhri ever dwelt on the trauma of separation and bloodshed they had witnessed, as they fled overnight from places they had lived in for generations with little more than the clothes of their backs and a handful of baubles they desperately clung to for memory. Even refugee womenfolk – many widowed – who often visited my mother were reticent about their early lives across the newly-created border, internalising or blotting out their individual tragedies and bravely smiling their way through their enforced destitution.

Nostalgia, however, trumped all other sentiment amongst refugees.

Most talked yearningly of the abodes they had left behind as places of cornucopia, where existences were divine and food and commodities plentiful and cheap. Many reminisced about their real or imagined affluence, concluding most such indulgences with the classic: ‘Chhado ji, Lyallpur diyan zameenan Lyallpur hi reh gaeeyan (Let it be; the lands we owned in Lyallpur have got left behind there)’. Ironically, for years this was a catchphrase signifying realism and one with which the first generation of refugees rebuilt their futures with tenacity and grit.

I cannot, however, recall anyone talking about the trauma they had lived through to get to Jagadhri. Perhaps, they consciously blotted the actuality of physical displacement out of their consciousness, not wanting it to interfere with their efforts to rebuild a new life. Alternately, like most things unpleasant, they simply blocked out the emotion, violence and loss generated by Partition as too awful to bear and hence, better jettisoned.

Also read: Why the Partition Is Not an Event of the Past

The be-whiskered Pandit Sewa Ram was one such person who managed our family’s dharamshala and over years became a part of our family, eating with us and participating in all domestic events like birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations.

A native of Rawalpindi, Panditji was distinctive in appearance. His flowing white beard hid his cherry-pink complexion whilst his billowing shalwar-kameez and loosely tied turban added to his overall allure and personality. He never talked of the past, but seemingly he was the sole survivor of a large family that fled Rawalpindi after riots broke out ahead of Partition following which something terrible occurred. We never knew what it was, but till he died at a ripe old age in the 1960s we could only speculate what Panditji endured.

But occasionally, the endearing old man from Rawalpindi told us the story of the Zubeida-Shahzadi-Sultana biopic starrer Kanak Tara, directed by Fatma Begum in 1929. I suspect this was the only movie he ever saw in his entire life, as we never knew him to ever go to the cinema. In his happy moments, which were few, he would gift us kids assorted writing nibs from a secret stash he had stowed away in his unkempt, but fascinating, dharamshala room. I suspect collecting nibs was his hobby in his native Rawalpindi and so dear to him was the collection that he had carried it with him when he speedily left home in 1947.

Not far from the dharamshala was this old fruit-seller from Kasur who wore chequered tehmets (akin to the tamba that Punjabi bhangra dancers wear) and sat pensively on his haunches on a small wooden bench throughout the day. Occasionally, he would menacingly flash a murderous looking knife in the air accompanied by a stream of expletives in a dialect no one understood. As children, we were mortally terrified of him. But he invariably behaved courteously with the customers, using his ominous knife for the purpose for which it was intended: cutting fruit.

It was rumoured that his ire was directed at those who he blamed for the Punjab massacre, imagining all the time that he was still in Kasur. Late one evening, he got into a mild but hilarious argument with another tehmet-wearing and inebriated Shah Saheb from Multan, on whether their conversation was actually taking place in Kasur or Multan. The latter eventually conceded that perhaps he had had one peg too many to know the difference, and the flashing knife was, yet again, sheathed peacefully.

Many refugee families initially stayed at our dharamshala and over years moved into properties left behind by Muslim families who had migrated to Pakistan. Some set up community tandoors whilst others sold trinkets like hand-held fans, ankle-scrubbers, fruits, and vegetables, or took up odd jobs. There were entrepreneurs like Pishori (Peshawari) pakora-wala, whose progeny still operate the same business from the same shop, or the Bhagat brothers who only sold milk, curd, lassi and related products to the multitude of locals who routinely queued up each morning before their shop.

Also read: The Memories of Partition That Still Haunt Us

Gulatiji’s utterly untidy, but hugely popular, stationery shop did brisk business. He also sold bamboo dunks or pens and wooden slates smeared with ‘ghazni mitti’ to make their surfaces white so that school children could write on them. This refugee from Sargodha also traded in earthen inkpots, Urdu primers, kites, and flyers with popular film songs.

But Gulatiji was most sought after for Ibn-e-Safi’s spy thrillers featuring heroes Colonel Vinod and Captain Hameed, which he would rent out for an anna-a-day, or 6.25 paise in today’s money. The Urdu version was always in greater demand, but only the privileged got to read the novels – of which 127 were written by this India-born author who later migrated to Pakistan.

The refugees also brought with them a polyglot of languages. Those from West Punjab spoke different Punjabi dialects with peculiar diction, pronunciations, and accents, all of which eventually segued into a unique Urdu-laced Punjabi dialect in and around Jagadhri. Urdu, however, remained the language of official communication and legal documentation.

It was also not uncommon for film posters and instructions in busses also to be written in Urdu, while newspapers in this language sold more than Hindi newspapers. Munadis (public announcements via hailers) too were in Urdu – invariably starting with ‘pehle suno yeh ghor se, phir baat karo kisi aur se’ (First listen to this before you talk with others), as were billboards and pronouncements by political parties and trade unions.

Over years, shop billboards celebrating cities in Pakistan disappeared, as did Urdu and the nostalgia either for lands in Lyallpur or the wonder that was Lahore and Peshawar and the myriad places in Pakistan that feature today on social media and on YouTube clips. They remain as far and inaccessible from Jagadhri as the moon. Third generation refugee progenies too have no connect with the wonder – real or imagined – that was pre-Partition India.

All memories have been consigned to a rarely-visited virtual museum. And if I were to give this museum of my personal memories of Partition a name, it would definitely be ‘Resilience and Fortitude’ of lives lived and lives made.

Amit Cowshish is former financial advisor (acquisitions), Ministry of Defence.

Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Pandit Sewa Ram was from Peshawar.